Tag - north

An Introduction to Laos

laos_gibbon_experience_bokeo_3Poetically dubbed the “land of a million elephants”, the charming country of Laos is situated in the centre of the Indochina Peninsula. Bordered by China to the north, Myanmar to the northwest, Vietnam to the east and Cambodia to the south, Laos embodies everything that makes its neighbouring countries great.

You will be sure to find a warm welcome and broad smiles as you explore Laos and discover all that the country has to offer. Despite years of war and hardship, this former French colony has managed to retain its unique culture and stunning natural scenery. The pace of life here is gentle and as you explore you will be seduced by the chilled-out attitude of the people you meet.

Laos has only been part of the tourist trade for just over a decade, yet it has a lot to offer those with a strong sense of adventure. There are plenty of opportunities to get away from the tourist scene and discover the dense forests and wander along dusty back roads where you will be greeted by waving children and friendly families as you pass.

North-eastern Laos is still very underdeveloped and this is a great place to head if you want to escape the tourist scene and really get to know the country, while to the south you will find plenty of pretty islands and beaches and even the chance to view the elusive Kratie river dolphin.

However, there are several small towns and villages geared towards tourism, such as the enchanting village of Vang Vieng, where visitors are encouraged to relax with a good meal and a beer or two, surrounded by spectacular views of the limestone cliffs and sparkling river.

This is a great place to go trekking and explore the countryside, spending the night in a traditional village with a family. White water rafting, kayaking, rock-climbing and cycling are all popular, while to the south the Four Thousand Islands offer the perfect piece of paradise.

Travellers in Laos will never go hungry and there is a good range of dishes available for those with a sense of adventure. Lao food has been influenced by the French, Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese and throughout Laos you will discover culinary delights such as French baguettes, spicy Thai salads and Vietnamese noodles. 

Laos is a good place to explore at any time, but it really comes alive during its festivals, especially the New Year and Rocket Festival. It’s a good idea to time your trip to coincide with one of these festivals as the streets are filled with singing and dancing and people put on their best clothes and biggest smiles.

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Location and History of Malaysia

Location and History of Malaysia
Location and History of Malaysia
Location and History of Malaysia
Covering 329,847 square kilometres, Malaysia is situated in Southeast Asia and is bordered by Thailand, to the north, Indonesia and Singapore to the south, and Brunei and the Philippines to the east. Malaysia is divided into two separate land masses – known as Peninsular Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo - by the South China Sea.

Malaysia has a tropical climate, with a hot summer and intense rainy season. With forest and mountain ranges running through the country from north to south, there are mangrove swamps and mudflats on the west coast, which separate into bays and inlets. There are a number of beautiful beaches on the west coast as well as dense forests to explore.

Malaysia’s modern history dates back to the 2nd century AD, when there were a collection of up to 30 separate Malay kingdoms. The Malay kingdoms gained power and riches as costal city ports, which were established in the 10th century. Originally Hindu or Buddhist states, Islamic found a place in Malaysia in the 14th century.

The Sultanate of Malacca was established at the start of the 15th century by prince Parameswara, from Palembang, who fled to the area from what is now known as Singapore. Prince Parameswara turned Malacca into an important trading port, putting Malaysia firmly on the map. However, Malacca was conquered by Portugal in 1511 and a Portuguese colony was established there.

In 1786 Britain established a colony in the Malay Peninsula, with the British East India Company leasing the island of Penang from the Sultan of Kedah. The Anglo-Dutch Treaty was signed in 1824, which divided the Malaya archipelago between Britain and the Netherlands.

Although there were Malaysian figureheads, the British mostly ruled Malaysia until the Japanese occupation during WWII. The Federation of Malaya was established in 1948, which reinstated the independence of the rulers of the Malay states under British protection.

From 1948 to 1960 the Communist Party of Malaya embarked on a guerrilla campaign known as the Malayan Emergency from 1948 to 1960 to force the British out of Malaya. Independence for the Federation within the Commonwealth was finally granted on 31 August 1957, and the Federation was renamed Malaysia in 1963.

At first there was much fighting with Indonesia over boundary lines, culmination in the racial riots of 1969. The New Economic Policy was established to restore peace to the country and since then Malaysia’s various ethnic groups have lived more or less in harmony.  

These days Malaysia’s economic and social structures are good and the country’s affluence can be seen in modern structures such as Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Twin Towers and the Sepang F1 Circuit.
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Western Cambodia

Western Cambodia
Western Cambodia
This picturesque region of Cambodia stretches from the capital city of Phnom Pehn to the Thai border. The area is marked by two dramatic mountain ranges, namely the Cardamom Mountains located in the southwestern corner and the Dangrek Range to the north.

There are a number of picturesque villages located in this region of Cambodia, especially in amongst the Cardamom Mountains. Although not many travellers visit western Cambodia, those that do will find waterfalls, caves and traditional villages, where the way of life has stayed more or less the same for centuries.

This is a great place to rest and unwind away from the tourist scene. Although you won’t find many bars or beaches in this area, there is still plenty to do. Hike through the forest, discover traditional craft skills at tribal villages and take a boat trip from Battambang to Siem Reap.
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Pursat, Cambodia

Pursat, Cambodia
Pursat, Cambodia
Pursat, Cambodia
This picturesque and peaceful town is a great place to unwind for a while and it serves as a base for those wishing to explore the stunningly beautiful Central Cardamoms Protected Forest. Pursat is also a transit point Battambang and Phnom Penh and this is a pretty place to pause and slow the pace a little as you travel between the two cities.

One of Pursat’s most famous features is its marble carvers, and visitors will have the chance to watch local craftsmen honing their skills in various workshops as they explore and it is even possible to purchase finished pieces to take home as gifts and souvenirs.

The floating village of Kompong Luong is a great place for a day trip. Situated on the mighty Tonle Sap Lake, this is a pretty place to explore and watch the fishermen at work. There are also a number of good restaurants here serving fresh fish and traditional Khmer dishes.
 
Another good day trip destination is Nhek Ta Khleang Moeung, where people travel to of worship the spirit of Nhek Ta and ask for his assistance. The site is situated 3 miles from Pursat and is a particularly pleasant walk.

Slightly further away, the sacred site of Baktra is also worth visiting. Climb the high hill for spectacular views of the area and see the pretty forest stream and natural wells. For an alternative way to see the countryside, take a trip on the traditional bamboo railway before returning to Pursat for a good meal in one of the local restaurants.

As you explore the area you will discover a number of pretty waterfalls, which are the perfect place to cool down after hiking in the heat of the day. In the evening, join the local people who gather in the small park near the bridge to enjoy the cool river breeze and relaxed atmosphere.
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Anlong Veng, Cambodia

Anlong Veng, Cambodia
Anlong Veng, Cambodia
Anlong Veng, Cambodia
Anlong Veng is famous - or rather infamous - as being the home of Khmer Rouge Brother Number One Pol Pot as well as other leaders such as Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan and Ta Mok. The little town is close to the border crossing of Choam–Choam Srawngam, and this is a good place to enter Thailand if you want to avoid the crowds and general hustle and bustle at Poi Pet.

Exercise caution when exploring this area as there are still a large number of unexploded landmarks in the countryside around the town. Make sure you stick to the clearly marked paths and if in doubt hire a guide to show you the sights.

Most people visit Anlong Veng to discover more about Cambodia under the rule of the Khmer Rouge. Those who are interested in the life of former leader Pol Pot will be able to take a motorcycle ride through paddy fields to get here. Although the house itself is a bit of a let down, the ride is worthwhile as it takes visitors past the picturesque Damrek Mountains.

Next, take a short walk to Ta Mok’s mountain house, which offers stunning views of the surrounding area from is lofty position. Those who want to spend the night here will find a comfortable guesthouse nearby. Afterwards, take a short trip to Ta Mok’s town house, which is set overlooking a large lake. The house was built by Tak Mok himself and contains a number of large murals depicting scenes of Preah Vihear and Angkor Wat.

Pol Pot’s grave is also located in the town of Anlong Veng, although it is a fairly modest construction, complete with wire from old tires and a rusting metal roof. There is a small shrine nearby, which was put up by someone from Thailand after they had a dream in which Pol Pot appeared to them with the winning lottery numbers. Even in death, Pol Pot’s legend lives on in its own bafflingly bizarre way.

Local people often tend to gather at the manmade Anlong Veng Lake to do a spot of fishing, and this is also a good place to swim or take a boat out. Those who are feeling a bit peckish can buy food from the snack stalls that can be found near the lake and enjoy a picnic while soaking up the scenery.
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Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Siem Reap and Angkor Wat
Siem Reap and Angkor Wat
Siem Reap and Angkor Wat
Siem Reap and Angkor Wat
The small city of Siem Reap is the best place to stay if you intend to visit the Angkor Wat complex. There are a number of good places to stay, restaurants offering a wide variety of international cuisine and bars to hang out in the evening.

Before you visit Angkor, stop by Miniature Replicas, where you will see sculptures of all the temples situated in a lovely garden. This is a good way to get an idea of how much there is to see and plan your time accordingly. There are also a number of modern temples situated around Siem Reap, such as Wat Bo with its beautiful paintings and former royal palace Wat Dam Nak, which provide an interesting contrast to the wonders of Angkor.

Angkor Wat is a major symbol in Cambodia; it appears on the flag, on coins, posters and just about anything else you can name. The site was reopened in 1991 after nearly two decades of closure due to civil unrest. The best way to start a tour of Angkor is to visit Phnom Bakheng in time for sunset. Not only is admission free, but you can get your pass made, avoiding the crowds the next day.

Get up early the following day and hire a moto with a driver for the day so that you can travel in style. Head straight to Angkor Thom, which is surrounded by a vast moat, before moving on to the Terrace of the Elephants, which is over 300 metres long.

The next temple to visit is the enchanting jungle temple of Preah Khan, while the nearby Neak Pean is a symbol of the lake that lies at the top of the universe.

It is best to allow around four hours to see Angkor Wat properly, so perhaps devote the following day to exploring this magnificent temple. According to records, it took around 30 years to complete Angkor Wat, which measures an impressive 65 metres and covers some 500 acres.

The mighty Wat is built on several levels. The Gallery features 1,000 Buddhas where Buddha effigies of all descriptions line the corridors, while the temples picture galleries display scenes from Hindu epic texts the Ramayana, the Battle of Kurukshetra, and other epic scenes such as the Judgement of Heaven and Hell. 1,500 apsaras or ‘heavenly dancing girls’ wonderfully decorate the second level interior.

Now it is time to screw up you courage and climb to the very summit of the top level, which is a privilege that was originally reserved for the High Priest and the King. 480 steep steps lead up to the five towers, which lie waiting like the Holy Grail at the end of a virtuous quest. Ascend the 70 degree angled steps carefully and walk around the outer gallery, enjoying the magnificent view, which is incredible from all angles. Watch the sun set before slowly descending once more.

Most people find it difficult to leave Siem Reap and you need to allow at least through days to explore thoroughly.
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Phnom Pehn, Cambodia

Phnom Pehn, Cambodia
Phnom Pehn, Cambodia
Phnom Pehn, Cambodia
Phnom Pehn, Cambodia
Cambodia’s capital city is loud, dirty and rather violent on first glance, earning it the reputation as a ‘rough city’. However, scratch the surface and you will find plenty of pretty places to walk, good restaurants and interesting buildings. Although the residents are not as warm and welcoming as in the countryside, many people are willing to provide much needed advice and a friendly face.

Phnom Penh was largely destroyed during the time of the Khmer Rouge and is slowly being restored to its former glory. Also known as Riverside, Sisowath Quay is a pretty avenue running along the banks of the Mekong River and is an interesting place to walk in the evening when dozens of stalls set up selling everything from good meals to cheap souvenirs.

According to popular legend, the city was founded in the 14th century by an old woman named Penh who discovered a tree with a handful of Buddha images wedged in a niche. She recovered the images and had a hill – phnom in the Khmer language - built to contain them. The city grew from there into the sprawling metropolis it is today.  

A tour of Phnom Penh should lead you straight to the Royal palace with its Silver Pagoda and temple of the Emerald Buddha. Also known as Wat Preah Keo Morokat, the entire floor of the Silver pagoda is covered with over 5,000 silver tiles, each weighing 1 kilo. Inside is the Emerald Buddha, which was crafted from baccorant crystal and is one of Cambodia’s most famous images.

Opposite, the National Museum is home to some impressive Khmer sculptures, including many pieces previously at Angkor. This is a good place to get a feel for the ancient art work and various styles. Climb a hill at the centre of a small park near Sisowath Quay for spectacular views and to visit Wat Phnom with its resident monkeys.

To get an idea for the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, many people take a day trip to the Killing Fields, which are located at Cheoung Ek, about 17 kilometres south of Phnom Penh. Now peaceful, this is the place where the Khmer Rouge killed several thousands of their victims and visitors can explore the Buddhist stupa which is filled with human skulls.  

Another gruesome reminder is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which is the actual school building that the Khmer Rouge leaders converted to a prison. The museum contains a number of graphic photographs detailing the brutality and handwritten accounts by a few of the survivors.

On a lighter note, taking a cruise on the Mekong River is a great way to see the area, and many tour companies offer sunset dinner cruises. Before you leave Phnom Pehn visit Mekong Island and watch the traditional weaving.

In additional to the city’s many bars and nightclubs, evening entertainment is provided by the French Cultural Centre, who show regular movies.
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Northern Cambodia

Northern Cambodia

Northern Cambodia
Most of Cambodia’s tourist attractions are located in the north of the country. Not only is the national monument of Angkor Wat located here, but also the nearby vibrant town of Siem Reap. Just a short distance away is the capital city of Phnom Penh, which contains a wide range of attractions as well as good restaurants and places to stay.

Visitors to the northern region of Cambodia will find plenty to see and do. There are two major border crossings in the area, allowing visitors to cross travel into Cambodia from the neighbouring country of Laos or from Thailand via the notorious casino town of Poipet.

Before you visit Angkor Wat, take the time to travel through the countryside and visit some of the other ancient temples, many of which predate the magnificent temple complex. Climb to the top of Sambor Prei Kuk and hike through the dense forest surrounding Pursat

Located in amongst the Damrek Mountains, Anlong Veng is the home town of a number of Khmer Rouge leaders such as Pol Pet and Nuon Chea. Explore this town to discover the houses of the two men and wander through the picturesque landscape.
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Beung Kan, Thailand

Beung Kan, Thailand
Beung Kan, Thailand
Beung Kan, Thailand
Situated in Nong Khai Province to the northeast of Thailand, Beung Kan makes a good stopping off point on the way to Laos. This is a quieter alternative to the interesting yet sometimes overwhelming bustling city of Nong Khai. Baung Kan may be quaint, dusty and slightly sleepy, but there is still plenty here for the adventurous to see and do.

A great attraction is the temple of Wat Phu Tok. This temple features six levels of steps, which can be slightly difficult to climb in the heat of the day - it is best to visit early in the morning or late in the afternoon. However, the spectacular views over the surrounds countryside from the top more than make up for the effort. This is a absolutely enchanting place, and people are offered the opportunity to get to know it better by staying overnight in one of the dormitories.

A pleasant day trip from Beung Kan is the charming little town of Sangkhom, which looks out on the Lao island of Don Klang. This is the home of several beautiful flowing waterfalls such as Nam Tok Than Thip and Nam Tok Than Thong, which is a great place for swimming and cooling down after a hike through the countryside.

Whilst there, make sure that you check out the pretty little temple of Wat Pa Tak Sua, which is located 4 kilometers from the town and another great hiking destination. Another point of interest is Wat Silawat. Beung Kan, a great place to hire a bicycle and go exploring or go trekking to.

This peaceful village is also a good place to be lazy for a few days and just soak up the stunning scenery, fresh air and tranquility. There are a few local guesthouses where you can indulge in delicious Thai food and practice the simple art of doing nothing.

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Ubon, Thailand

Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand
Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand
Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand
Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand
Ubon Ratchathani Province is located in the southeast of the Isan region of Thailand. The capital city bears the same name, but is more commonly known as Ubon. The name means Royal Land Lotus Blossom in the Thai language and refers to the exceptional natural beauty of the area.

The city, which sits on the northern bank of the Mun River, was originally founded in the late 18th century by Lao immigrants and still retains many aspects of Lao style and culture. For an insight into the rich and interesting history of this area, pay a visit to the Ubon National Museum.

Ubon Ratchathani is best loved for its stunning national parks. No visit is complete without seeing the spectacular Phu Chong Na Yoi National Park, which covers an area of 687 square kilometers, featuring stunning views from the cliffs at Pha Pheung and the huge Bak Tew Yai Waterfall.

Another area of great beauty is the Kaeng Tana National Park and don't miss the Pha Taem National Park with its pre-historic cliff paintings showing scenes of fishing, rice farming, figures of people and animals.

There are many beautiful waterfalls in the area, and it is possible to swim in the clear waters of most. Some of the best include Nam Tok Saeng Chan, Nam Tok Thung Na Muang and the magnificent Nam Tok Soi Sawan.

It goes without saying that there are many interesting temples to explore, embodying design features of both Lao and Thai temple art. Look out for Wat Tung Si Muang, Wat Supattanaram, the rectangular chedi of Wat Phra That Nong Bua, Wat Si Ubon Rattanaram and many others.

Koh Hat Wat Tai is a small island in the Mae Nam Mun which is great for swimming and sunbathing. Another attraction in the area are the Warin Chamrap District Temples. These are two temples where people from all over the world gather to study meditation. Wat Nong Pa Phung is reserved for Thai people, while Wat Pa Nanachat is for non-Thais.

The silk weaving village of Wat Nong Bua is located 18 kilometers from the city and makes a great day trip, while many people travel to ride the Kaeng Saphue rapids or take a boat trip on the turbulent white waters.

Ubon has a large night market, which is a great place to get a cheap meal and buy some local produce.

If you are in the area during the festival of awk hansaa in July, make sure you stay for the Candle Festival, when processions of wax religious images are carried through the city on floats.

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Nakhon Phanom, Thailand

Nakhon Phanom, Thailand
Nakhon Phanom, Thailand
Nakhon Phanom, Thailand
Nakhon Phanom, Thailand
The name Nakhon Phanom means 'city of hills' in the Thai language, and this ancient city located on the right bank of the Mekong River in Nakhon Phanom Province in northeast Thailand gets its name from the striking jungle covered mountains which surround it. Nakhon Phanom is situated 580 kilometers northeast of Bangkok, across the Mekong River from the Laotian town of Thakhek. Nakhon Phanom is well known as a place of great beauty and a gentle pace of life which immediately enchants visitors and stays with them throughout the rest of their journey.

The culture, art, music and customs of the Lao people have a strong influence on this area, and it is blended well with the elements of Thai culture as well as the faint traces of other cultures which still linger in the background.

It is well worth taking the time to explore the town's temples, especially as many of them embrace both Thai and Lao temple design features. Wat Si Thep is a good place to start as it is covered with a collection of beautiful murals. Other interesting temples include Wat Okat Si Bua Ban, Wat Maha That and Wat Noi Pho Kham.

Located 50 kilometres from Nakhon Phanom town, Phra That Phanom is the most celebrated temple in the area and makes a good day trip. The temple features a magnificent 53 metre high five-tiered golden umbrella inlaid with a plethora of precious gems.

Just 4 kilometres west of Nakhon Phanom town, Ban Na Chok offers a rare opportunity to visit a Vietnamese community in Thailand and learn about their unique culture and traditional way of life.

There are many other appealing villages around Nakhon Phanom town that make good day trips. Hire a bicycle and head 45 kilometres north to Nam Song Si. Another great day trip is the cotton weaving village of Renu Nakhon, 52 kilometres south. Whilst there, pay a visit to the attractive Wat Phra That Renu Nakhon.

The Riverside Promenade follows the banks of the mighty Mekong River, and there are dozens of food stalls dotted along the banks from which to buy a cheap meal and watch the world go by.

Nestled in the Langka Mountain Range, the Phu Langka National Park is a great place of natural beauty and stunning vistas. There are two sparkling waterfalls to swim in and many places to enjoy a picnic in the sunshine.

Interestingly, the beach of Hat Sai Thong - Golden Sand Beach - only appears between February to April, when the river is at its lowest. If you happen to be in the area at the time, this is a good opportunity to slap on some suntan lotion and soak up some rays.

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Nong Khai, Thailand

Nong Khai, Thailand
Nong Khai, Thailand
Nong Khai, Thailand
Nong Khai, Thailand
Nong Khai Province, in the very northeast of Thailand, is often referred to as the gateway to Laos as many people stop off there on their way to visiting Thailand's northern cousin. Even if you're not planning to cross into Laos, make sure you check out the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge, which spans the Mekong River.

The province features stunning scenery consisting of forests, national parks, and many small towns located on the banks of the Mekong River. There are two main points of interest for visitors to Nong Khai Province; the city of Nong Khai and the quiet yet charming dusty town of Beung Kan.

Nong Khai is the capital of the Nong Khai Province and offers a wide range of things to see and do. Indeed, many people visit the city only intending to stay a day or two and end up staying for several weeks.

The main attraction of Nong Khai city is the Sala Kaew Ku Sculpture Park, which is full of massive sculptures from Buddhist and Hindu ideologies. Here you will find incredible images such as seven-headed Naga snakes and a wide range of human-animal hybrids.

Visitors should make a point of seeing Wat Pho Chai, which contains the magnificent Laos-style Luang Phra Sai. Other temples of interest include Wat Noen Phra Nao, Wat Lam Duan and Wat Tung Sawang.

During the dry season, the spire of Phra That Nong Khai appears above the waters of the Mekong River. Also appearing in the dry season is the beach of Hat Jommani, which is a good place to soak up the sun.

Nature lovers should pay a visit to the extremely beautiful Phu Wua Wildlife Reserve, while the Nong Khai Museum is a great source of local history and culture.

Nong Khai is a province that loves to party, and there are many colourful festivals to see and enjoy. Late May brings the Rocket Festival, while the full moon in October brings the Rowing Festival. This festival is famous as this is the time when fireballs mysteriously shoot from the Mekong River. The fireballs are widely believed to be breathed by a sea monster living in the river - dispute it at your peril!

Another festival worth looking out for is Anou Savari, which occurs on March 5th and is the city's biggest street fair.

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Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand

Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand
Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand
Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand
Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand
Nakhon Ratchasima Province was once part of the Khmer empire and was moved by King Narai between 1656-1688. Around 260 kilometres from Bangkok, travel to Nakhon Ratchasima is easy as it is connected with the northeastern railway line and the Nakhon Ratchasima Airport is 26km east of the city.

There are two main focal points for visitors to this province, the city of Nakhon Ratchasima and the picturesque town of Phimai.

The city of Nakhon Ratchasima is better known as Khorat or Korat. Korat is the capital of Nakhon Ratchasima Province, and there is a great deal to see and do and many opportunities to learn about the city's interesting history.

A good place to start is the Maha Viravong National Museum, which contains good displays and countless well labeled artifacts. Another interesting site is the Thao Suranaree Monument, where you can see the revered Lady Mo statue.

A tour of the city will lead you to the city wall and unique Chumphon Gate, and don't forget to look out for the l?k meuang (city pillar shrine).

Nakhon Ratchasima Province is famous for its pottery, and excellent examples of this can be seen decorating Wat Salaloi. Other interesting temples in this city include Wat Phra Narai Maharat and Wat Pa Salawan.

Nakhon Ratchasima is special in that it has two night bazaars, and both the Thanon Manat Night Bazaar and Wat Boon Night Bazaar and good places to do some shopping, have a cheap meal and do a little people watching.

One of the main attractions of this area is the magnificent Khao Yai National Park with its dense jungles, spectacular mountain views and famous waterfall.

Another great day trip is the Reclining Buddha Image at Wat Dhammachakra Sema Ram, just 40 kilometres south of Korat.

If you are in the area during March, make sure you time your trip to coincide with the Thao Suranari festival. Celebrated between March 22nd and April 3rd, the festival features parades, theatre and folk songs. 

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Loei, Thailand

Loei, Thailand
Loei, Thailand
Loei, Thailand
Loei, Thailand
This sparsely populated province in the North-East of Thailand has a lot to offer for the independent traveler with a strong sense of adventure and a dash of curiosity. Close to the Laos border, this can be a great place to stop off for a few days and discover the spirit of Thailand.

With its low mountains, flowing waterfalls and immense areas of open, fertile land forming plains that hold the province's main town and the River Loei, this is a place of great natural beauty and contains a wide range of both natural and cultural attractions.

The province of Loei experiences different weather conditions to much of the rest of Thailand. During the winter the temperature can drop to 0 degrees C with swirling fogs and mists, whilst in the summer it is not unusual for temperatures to exceed 0 degrees C.

There are three main areas in this richly diverse province that draw travellers: Loei city, Dan Sai and the sleepy yet picturesque and very welcoming town of Chiang Khan.

The city of Loei was formed in 1853 by king Mongkut (Rama IV) in order to better administer the accelerated population in the area. Loei city is the capital of Loei Province and there are many things for visitors to see and do.

The extremely beautiful Phu Kradung National Park is well worth exploring, and it is easy to spend an entire day there as it contains several sparkling waterfalls and Tham Yai - which literally means 'big cave' in Thai.

Another great day trip idea is the Phu Reua National Park, which can be combined with a visit to the nearby Tham Erawan and Wat Tham Erawan.

The Culture Center of Loei is a great place to explore at your leisure and get to grips with the local history, and you can discover the uniquely creative side of the people at the Sirindhorn Arts Centre.

The centrally located night market is a good place to pick up a bargain, engage in some colourful local banter and find a cheap and tasty meal.

If you are in Loei city at the end of January, don't miss the Cotton Blossom Festival, where floats are decorated with cotton and there is dancing and cavorting in the streets.

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Buriram, Thailand

Buriram, Thailand
buriram_4
Buriram, Thailand
Many places in Thailand are given poetic names and Buriram, which means City of Happiness, is no exception. The town of Buriram is the capital of Buriram Province in Isan and is located roughly 410 kilometers northeast of Bangkok.

Located on the northeastern railway line and with a regional airport; Buriram Airport, Buriram is easily assessable. Buriram Province is steeped in history and the beautiful backdrop makes this a good place in which to chill out for a few days and to get to know Thailand.

The Phanom Rung Historical Park, 40 kilometres south of Buriram town is situated on the summit of an erupted volcano and has spectacular views of the surrounding paddy fields. This thousand-year-old site contains one of the most important Khmer sites outside Cambodia, the magnificent Phanom Rung temple, which is also the largest Khmer monument in Thailand.

The Khmer temple at nearby Prasat Meung Tam is also well worth a visit, and there are dozens of other interesting Khmer ruins in the area such as Kuti Reusi Nong Bua Rai, Kuti Reusi Khok Meuang and Prasat Khao Praibat.

Bird enthusiasts should check out the Buriram Bird Park, and the ancient kilns at Tao Sawai ancient kilns offer an insight into the craft of pottery.

The Lower Isan Cultural Centre is a good place to visit to learn more about the rich and interesting history and people of this unique area, and the beautiful Khao Kradong Forest Park, with its enormous Buddha image crowning a hill offers spectacular views over the lush green countryside.

Buriram Province is some what cooler than most of Thailand and a great way to explore the region and pass a few days is to hire a bicycle and explore.

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Khon Khen, Thailand

Khon Khen, Thailand
Khon Khen, Thailand
Nestled in the heart of Isan, Khon Kaen is the centre of Northeast. The capital of Khon Kaen Province is the city of Khon Kaen, which is a rich source of culture.

The Khon Kaen National Museum, Khon Kaen City Museum and the Art and Culture Museum are all great places to spend a couple of hours and learn about the area and its people.

To the centre of the city, the beautiful 100-hectare lake known as Beung Kaen Nakhon (Kaen Nakhon Lake) is a great spot for a picnic, whilst the nearby temples of Wat That and Wat Nong Wang Muang and definitely worth exploring.

Khon Kaen is the centre of the north-eastern silk industry, and the Sala Mai Thai silk village 55 kilometres to the west makes a great day trip. Here you will see top quality silk dyed in a wide range of colours and made into a multitude of different products, and in the traditional weaving households you can actually see the silk being skilfully woven.

Khon Kaen is a province with stunning natural beauty and it features a couple of great national parks. Phu Wiang National Park was recently made famous when dinosaur remains were unearthed there, whilst the Nam Nao National Park contains the region's highest mountain

peak - Phu Pha Jit, which measures a colossal 1271 metres. It is possible to camp in the grounds of both national parks for just 30 baht, which makes a very cheap and picturesque option, although not so much so during the monsoon season!
Next door to the park the Phu Kiaw Wildlife Sanctuary, which is home to leopards, tigers, elephants and many other beasties.

Also not to be missed is the unusual Ban Khok Sa-Nga Cobra Village, where the local snakes are highly revered. Here you can witness the love and trust shown by the villagers to the mighty snakes as well as daily cobra shows.

Another great day trip is Prasat Peuay Noi (also know as Ku Peauy Noi), where you will see the region's largest Khmer temple.

Khon Kaen celebrates its local skills and traditions with the Silk Fair and Phuk Siaw Festival, which last for 12 days in late November. The Phuk Siaw Festival is specially intended to preserve the unique Phuuk Siaw (friend bonding) tradition and is marked with much merry making and folk dancing.

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Lamphun, Thailand

Lamphun, Thailand
Lamphun, Thailand
Lamphun, Thailand
lamphun_4
Situated to the south east of Chiang Mai, Lamphun Province is steeped in history and culture. The province capital is the quiet town of Lamphun, which can be found 670 kilometres from Bangkok. The town is located on the bank of the Kuang River and contains many interesting attractions including ancient sites and relics, forests, mountains and pretty lakes. Lamphun is also well known as a producer of longans, the extremely sweet and delicious Thai fruit with its hard, yellow shell.

Lamphun is an area of great natural beauty. Particularly picturesque is the Mae Ping National Park, with its lush forests and the Ping River running through it. The park is also home to the seven-tiered Namtok Ko Luang and a limestone cave full of stalactites and stalagmites.

Another area of intense natural beauty is the Doi Khun Tan National Park, with its pretty orchids and lilies as well as impressive bamboo and pine forests. Namtok Tat Moei is an imposing waterfall in this park and an interesting feature is that it can be reached directly by train from Chiang Mai.

Lamphun is blessed with a large number of sites of highly respected historical and cultural importance. Wat Phra That Hariphunchai was built during the reign of King Arthitayarat, a descendant of Queen Chamthewi, around 800 years ago. Principal features of this temple include the 46-metre tall golden chedi and the Khmer-style Buddha statue. Other interesting temples in this area include Wat Phra Yuen, Wat Mahawan, Wat Chamthewi and the highly revered Wat Phra Phutthabat Tak Pha, where according to legend the Lord Buddha once stayed, leaving a likeness of monk's saffron robe and his footprint imprinted in the stone ground.

The impressive Hariphunchai National Museum is a good place to discover the area's rich and interesting history. The museum features displays of prehistoric human skeletons and objects of arts from the Dvaravati, Hariphunchai, Lanna and Rattanakosin periods. There also some interesting displays of temple art, which has been carefully collected and displayed over a period of several years.

Another way to get an idea of the area's history and culture is by visiting Ban Hong, which is the site of a warm and welcoming 1,400-year-old community dating back to the Hariphunchai Kingdom.

If you are interested in handicrafts, the cotton weaving village of Pasong makes a good day trip. Whilst there, pay a visit to Wat Chang Khao No and the bustling market places, where you can buy a wide range of cotton products.

There are a large number of interesting celebrations in Lamphun Province. Particularly vibrant is the Lam Yai Festival, which takes place in the second week of August. Also known as the Longan Fair, the objective is to promote the area's sweet and succulent the fruit. The festival features a parade of floats made from longan fruit and the Miss Lam Yai contest.

Another popular event is the Song Nam Phra That Hariphunchai which is held to celebrate the province's principal religious site and takes place in May.

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Phitsanulok, Thailand

Phitsanulok, Thailand
Phitsanulok, Thailand
Phitsanulok, Thailand
Phitsanulok, Thailand
Phitsanulok Province is situated 377 kilometres north of Bangkok and is an important centre for travellers wishing to explore the lower North and western Northeast regions of Thailand. The city of offers many interesting sites for visitors and a range of activities.

Phitsanulok is relatively easy for the independent traveller as most of the residents speak central Thai, whilst many speak English. The weather tends to be a little more moderate than much of the region and transportation is easy to find.

This is a great place for exploring the surrounding countryside, and the nearby Phu Hin Rong Kla National Park contains many beautiful waterfalls as well as a White Hmong Village. Another area of natural beauty just waiting to be discovered is the Tung Salaeng Luang National Park, with its stunning mountains, caves and waterfalls.

Phitsanulok was the birthplace of King Naresuan the Great, who reigned from 1590-1605. This is the legendary King who declared Ayutthaya's independence from Burma in 1584 and is celebrated for his victorious and admirable single handed combat on elephant back against the Burmese Crown Prince.

There are many interesting temples to explore in and around the city of Phitsanulok including Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat, Wat Ratchaburana, Wat Nang Phaya and Wat Chedi Yod Thong. If you are interested in temple art, make sure you pay a visit to The Buranathai Buddha Foundry, which specializes in casting bronze Buddha images and is unique in the province

The Sergeant-Major Dr. Thawee Buranakhet Folklore Museum is an interesting place to spend an hour or two as it contains a collection of folk arts, crafts, pottery and ancient kitchen utensils.

Many visitors come to Phitsanulok to experience the challenging and exciting rapids nearby white water rafting, whilst others find inner peace at the Dharma Abha Vipassana Meditation Center.

The daily night market is a great place to shop for souvenirs, buy local fabrics and have a cheap meal, whilst others choose to splash out on a romantic evening meal at one of the city's floating restaurants.

The people of Phitsanulok love to celebrate, and it is worth trying to time your trip to coincide with one of the festivals and local fairs. Each January, Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahatat Woramahawihan plays host to the Phra Buddha Chinnarat Fair, whilst the The Suan Chom Nan Park festival is held twice yearly along the Nan River. Also interesting are the Dragon Boat Races, which take place on the first weekend of each October. People crowd on the edge of the river banks to cheer for the huge, elaborately decorated boats, which are painstakingly created and have a crew of about 30 oarsmen.

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Petchaboon, Thailand

Petchaboon, Thailand
Petchaboon, Thailand
Petchaboon, Thailand
Petchaboon, Thailand
Situated 346 kilometres from Bangkok, Petchaboon is a very pretty province in the northern region of Thailand. The name of the province actually means the land of crops and food in the Thai language and this is a very fertile area, largely due to its location on the Pa Sak river basin. With mountain ranges running along both the western and eastern parts, Petchaboon Province is the perfect place for nature lovers as it is full of well-known national parks, beautiful waterfalls and great lakes.

A great place to discover the abundant beauty of the area is at the Nam Nao National Park. This enormous conservation park is full of forests, grasslands and virgin jungles. Nam Nao Park offers visitors the opportunity to learn about plants, wild animals and outdoor activities through trekking and bird watching. More than 100 species of birds have made their home in Nam Nao Park, and it is also a good place to see the famous fog that gathers in the region during cool weather.

Other extremely beautiful areas are the Namtok Than Thip Forest Park and Thung Salaeng Luang National Park, whilst you can soak away your troubles after a hard day of trekking at the Ban Phu Toei Hot Spring Park.

The Khao Kho Wildlife Captive Breeding Centre is a great place to find out how to care for and protect animals. The centre can be found in Khao Kho National Park, which is located about 1 hour northwest of Petchaboon town and thought by many to be the most beautiful of all the area's parks because of its stunning mountain views. Also in the park are the Khao Kho International Library, which is shaped like an upside down diamond, and the Khao Kho Sacrificial Monument.

There are a large number of sparkling waterfalls in the area, which make a good focus point for trekking and hiking. Of particular note are Namtok Si Dit and the large Than Thip Waterfall, located in the Than Thip Forest Park, whilst Tham Ruesi Sombat is a large and interesting cave.

If you are interested in temples, Petchaboon has many treats in store. Look out for the ancient Wat Si Mongkhon, Phra Borommathat Chedi Kanchanaphisek, Phra Tamnak Khao Kho and Chedi Phra Borommasaririkkathat Khao Kho, which contains relics of Lord Buddha brought to Thailand from Sri Lanka.

Petchaboon Province is the home of many exciting and vibrant festivals. The Um Pra Dam Nam festival is an unusual event held on the fifteenth day of the waning

moon in the 10th lunar month. The festival features a special ceremony, during which an image of Phra Buddha Maha Thammaracha is carried around the town so that people can pay respect to it and stick gold leaf onto its body. The Buddha image is then taken by the governor of Petchaboon to be immersed in the Pah Sak River. After the ceremony, the water in the river is regarded as sacred.
Another interesting and unique tradition is Seng Klong, when the villagers of Petchaboon ask god and the angels to come to make merit with them. The ceremony is held during the end of Buddhist Lent around the Por Kun Pah Maung Monument to promote the honor of Por Kun Pah. This celebration features many other activities, such as the drum contest, the beauty queen contest and colorful floating lanterns, which fill the sky.

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Sukhothai, Thailand

Sukhothai, Thailand
Sukhothai, Thailand
Sukhothai, Thailand
Sukhothai, Thailand
The name Sukhothai means "Dawn of Happiness" in Thai and this is an interesting province in northern Thailand located in the valley of the Yom River. Sukhothai is approximately 427 kilometres north of Bangkok and covers an area of around 6,600 square kilometres. The province was established in the 13th century and was the first independent Thai Kingdom - the Kingdom of Sukhothai.

Today, most visitors come to see the spectacular Sukhothai Historical Park, which is full of interesting temples including Wat Si Chum, Wat Saphan Hin, Wat Si Sawai and Wat Trapang Thong. There are twenty six temples in all and Wat Mahathat is the largest, although all are worth a visit. Both the excellent Ramkhamhaeng National Museum and Sangkhalok Museum are good places to get to grips with Sukhothai's intriguing history. Exploring the temples in the sunshine can be hot and sticky, but the sunset bicycle tours, which run daily, can be a good way to see the sights whilst beating the heat.

But Sukhothai isn't all about temples and history. In fact, there are plenty of other dimensions to this province which cause travellers to extend their stay and visit time and again. If you are suffering from the relentless sun, you can cool down and enjoy a quick dip in the swimming pool at Suan Nam Premsuk, or get fit at the nightly aerobics classes opposite Wat Rachthani.

The night stalls opposite the Poo restaurant are a great, cheap place to sample the local cuisine, whilst indulging in a drink and a spot of people watching. Simply buy a food voucher and make your selection.

The Si Satchanalai-Chaliang Historical Park, 50 kilometres to the north, makes a great day trip and highlights include Wat Chang Lom, Wat Khao Phanom Phloeng, Wat Chedi Jet Thaew and Wat Nang Phaya. While you are there, stop in at the informative Sawanworanayok Museum and if you are interested in the ancient art of pottery don't miss Swankhalok Kilns, where you can learn all about the skill and how it has developed over the ages.

Another great day trip is Ban Hat Siaw, where you can bargain hunt amongst the colourful collection of textiles.

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Mae Hong Son, Thailand

Mae Hong Son, Thailand
Mae Hong Son, Thailand
Mae Hong Son, Thailand
Mae Hong Son, Thailand
This beautiful Northern Province is located along the banks of the river Pai near the border with Burma.

Mae Hong Son, with a population of around 7,000 people, is also the name of the Province capital. The town can easily be reached from Chiang Mai or via Mae Hong Son Airport.

Mae Hong Son is surrounded by mountains and is much cooler than the rest of Thailand, making it a great place to visit in the scorching summer months. In fact, for most of the year the valley is shrouded by mist and fog, which adds a mystical quality to it.

For nature lovers, Mae Hong Son is the perfect destination. Here you will find sparkling waterfalls, glittering caves such as Tham Mae La Na and the beautiful Tham Pla National Park makes a great day trip.

Mae Hong Son Province is home to the Padaung Hill Tribe villages, also known as the 'Long Neck Women' tribes after the long coils the women wear around their necks, which can weight as much as 22kg!

Many people visit the province in order to go trekking and visit these intriguingly exotic hill tribes. The hill tribe village of Ban Ruam Thai is particularly welcoming to independent visitors, or travellers can opt to go on a trekking tour, where a guide will take you to several villages in the area.

After trekking, you may want to relax in the Pha Bang Hot Spring, or pay your respects at the many local temples. There are dozens of gleaming temples to explore, such as Wat Huang Wiang, Wat Jong Kham or the nearby Wat Si Bunruang.

For the adventurous, Mae Hong Son is a great place to go rafting, and all your retail needs can be met at the bustling night market.

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Chiang Rai, Thailand

Chiang Rai, Thailand
Chiang Rai, Thailand
Chiang Rai, Thailand
Chiang Rai, Thailand
This picturesque northern province is situated 785 kilometres from Bangkok and shares borders with Myanmar in the north and Laos in the east. The city of Chiang Rai was founded by King Mengrai in 1262 and the centrally located King Mengrai the Great Memorial depicts the king in all his former glory.

This is a great place to visit if you appreciate cool weather, walking amongst attractive natural scenery, good food and chilling out in a city that has all the charm and atmosphere of a small village.

The city of Chiang Rai has a rather sleepy, relaxed feel to it, and exploring the streets can yield some interesting sights. The pure white temple of Wat Rong Khum has to be seen to be believed, whilst Wat Phra Kaeo is the original home of the Emerald Buddha, now located in the temple of the same name in Bangkok. Also worth exploring are Wat Pa Sak and Wat Phra That Doi Tung.

Although not as large as its neighbour in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai's Night Bazaar is a great place to pick up a bargain or two, whilst the sleepy village of Chiang Saen with its interesting history, warm welcome and architecture is a great place for a day trip.

But it is Chiang Rai's natural beauty that draws most visitors to the area. As well as enchanting jungle waterfalls such as Khun Korn Waterfall and Pong Phra Bat waterfall, there are also dozens of hot springs scattered around the area, where you can soak up the goodness of meltingly hot water and natural minerals either in public pools or secluded in your own private tub. Look out for the Pha Soet Hot Springs and Huai Hin Fon Hot Springs and Waterfall with its stunning jungle backdrop. What could be better than listening to the insects and wind in the trees as you enjoy a good soak?

The Hilltribe Museum and Education Centre is a great place to learn about the local people before going on a trek, and The Hall of Opium museum also provides a lot of interesting information about life in the area, both past and present.

No visit to the area would be complete without a trip to the absolutely stunning Phu Chi Fa Forest Park, and animal lovers can get up close and personal with the elephants at the Mae Sa Elephant Training Center.

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Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai, Thailand
Chiang Mai, Thailand
Chiang Mai, Thailand
Chiang Mai, Thailand
Situated in the north of Thailand, Chiang Mai Province is full of natural beauty spots such as Doi-Suthep-Pui National Park, Thap Lan National Park, Buak Hat Park and dozens of inviting waterfalls, among which Huay Kaew falls, Mae Sa Waterfall and Wachiratharn Waterfall should not be missed. The area is also a great place for bird watching, so make sure you bring your binoculars.

The capital of Chiang Mai Province is Chiang Mai city, which is the second largest city in Thailand and forms the focus point for travel to the north. Thousands of people visit Chiang Mai every year, drawn by its rich culture, cool climate and wide range of entertainment options.

Chiang Mai boasts over 300 temples, of which Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, situated atop Doi Intanon - Thailand's biggest mountain - is probably the most famous. Other temples worth seeing include the ancient Wat Chiang Man, Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang and the tranquil forest temple of Wat U-Mong.

The city of Chiang Mai was founded by King Mengrai in 1296, and a tribute to the great king can be seen in the Three Kings Monument. Both the informative Chiang Mai City Art and Cultural Center and the nearby Chiang Saen National Museum are good places to discover more of the area's interesting history and you can take a course or use the facilities at Chiang Mai University.

Often referred to as the 'Rose of the North', Chiang Mai is a great place to lose yourself for a week or two. The Old City is a great place to explore, where surprises wait around every corner, or why not go on a cycling tour with the Chiang Mai Cycle Club.

With prices often markedly less than in Bangkok, Chiang Mai is a great place to go shopping. Chiang Mai Night Bazaar is world famous and definitely should not be missed. The quaint umbrella village of Bo Sang makes a great place for a day trip and Talat Warorot is a good place to buy local produce, with prices to match.

Chiang Mai is a good place for self improvement and there are numerous courses and classes available. This is a great place to cook up a storm in a cookery class, and meditation courses always prove popular, whilst the sporty can learn a new skill at the Muay Thai Boxing Camp.

The stunning local scenery also provides a good backdrop for a range of sports such as Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures, and both Chiang Mai Flying Club and Oriental Balloon Flights provide a new perspective on the area.

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Northern Thailand

Northern Thailand
Northern Thailand
There are 17 provinces in Northern Thailand, all featuring stunning scenery, grand temples and a range of activities and opportunities to engage in extreme sports. Chiang Mai is the capital of Northern Thailand and is certainly the largest and loudest, although all the provinces have something to offer the tourist with a sense strong of adventure and an interest in the diverse history of the region.

Northern Thailand displays heavy influences from the neighboring cultures of Myanmar (Burma) and Yunnan (China). The kingdoms of Lanna and Sukhothai were the first historical Thai nations.

A series of Communist insurgencies and the effects from Myanmar's drug battles and civil wars has meant that recently a large portion of northern Thailand was off limits. However, these problems have now been mostly resolved, and safe, easy travel is possible throughout the north.

Although standard Thai language is widely understood, the people of Northern Thailand have their own Thai dialect called Kham Meaung. The hilltribes also have their own languages, and if you wish to make extensive contact with them it may be a good idea to employ a translator/guide.

The main airport in Northern Thailand is Chiang Mai, which serves both domestic and international flights. There are also small domestic airports at Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son, Pai, Phitsanulok and Sukhothai.

Spicy and bitter, Northern Thai food is quite different to that eaten in the rest of the country. There are dozens of local specialties and this is a great place to sample the traditional food of the hill tribes as well. A regional specialty is thick, slightly spicy sausages stuffed with raw garlic, the pride of Chiang Mai Province.

Other dishes to look out for include:

kaeng hang le - Burmese-style pork curry

khanom jiin naam ngiew - rice noodles with pork ribs and thick sauce

khao soi - a Burmese curry noodle soup served with shallots, lime and pickles to add as required.

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Two Wheels in Chiang Rai

Two Wheels in Chiang Rai
Two Wheels in Chiang Rai
Two Wheels in Chiang Rai
Two Wheels in Chiang Rai
Two Wheels in Chiang Rai
Two Wheels in Chiang Rai
Two Wheels in Chiang Rai
Two Wheels in Chiang Rai
Two Wheels in Chiang Rai
On arrival at Chiang Rai International Airport there is an immediate feeling of life having suddenly slowed down a cog or two. Being my first visit to the north of the country I feel I have finally discovered the famous Thai smile and much written about ‘mai pen rai’ attitude. Even the young soldiers in full military fatigues and armed with automatic weapons have an easy going air about them. My ipod, set to random shuffle, is somewhat appropriately playing U2’s Beautiful Day.
Recently I was shafted good and proper in an elaborate airport taxi scam in Kuala Lumpur and vowed never to let myself fall prey to such tactics again. So when I’m told that there is no option other than a 200baht ‘limousine’ ride for the 8km into town I shoulder my bag and march off to the road beyond the airport thinking that I’d rather walk it than get fleeced. My stubbornness soon pays off as the moment I’m out of the gates a guy in a van pulls up and offers to take me to town for 100baht.

He drops me at ST Motorcycle on Banphaprakan Road where I get a new 250cc all terrain 6 speed Honda for the inflated price of 700baht a day. By 9.30am I’m on the open road in the direction of Mai Sai and the Burmese border. Red earth, rice paddies and grazing buffalo are plentiful along the road and the scenery just gets better the further I go. The open road, clean air and the natural environment make a welcome break from Bangkok’s metropolitan madness. I have a late breakfast of somtam, sticky rice and gai yang at a small roadside restaurant about 19km outside Mai Sai. The staff are inquisitive about what I am doing and where I am going and exceptionally friendly. I just know that I will enjoy my few days in this area.

Mai Sai is not much to look at; a cluster of grubby looking concrete shop houses and street stalls with the border crossing into Burma located, dominantly, at the far end of the main street. The border is busy and is clearly very much used for local commerce. Burmese and Thai traders come and go with goods stacked on their backs, carried on bicycles and samlor, motorbikes and pick-ups.

Just as I think I’m going to get through the vehicle channel on the bike I’m fished out by a smiling soldier and reluctantly have to leave it with the tourist police. On the Burmese side I’m issued with a receipt for my passport, which will be retained and stamped whilst I’m away. The Burmese border town of Thakhilek is even drearier in appearance than Mai Sai and evidently less developed. Wandering through the streets I come across the rather plush Allure Resort and head in to use the bathroom facilities. Inside there is a casino full of slot machines all geared to take Thai baht and there is no shortage of day-tripping Thais happy to pay to watch the reels spin.

I don’t want to spend the day travelling further into Burma and can find very little to hold my attention in Thakilek so I stop for a coffee at a quaint little street café before heading back to the border. I order a cup of black coffee which arrives in a glass and thick with condensed milk, accompanied by the obligatory complimentary hot green tea and a selection of savoury buns and cigarettes on a sale or return basis. The furnishings are all miniature, the kind you might find in a kindergarten, and there are plastic spittoons full of the discarded remnants of chewed betel by every table. The waitresses are pleasant and welcoming and waft around the customers with grace and efficiency. All the Burmese here seem to speak Thai and accept Thai Baht. My coffee and two cigarettes (not that I would normally smoke) cost 15baht.

Returning across the border is a painless experience and it suddenly occurs to me that my first impression of this part of the country was right. Everyone here seems so much happier and easy going; surprisingly even the passport control guys have a smile and a few words. In the no-man’s land of the bridge between the two border posts there is a collection of women and children sat around begging for money. They are bedraggled and filthy and at the same time pleasant and not pushy. A young girl of about three or four skips along beside me asking for ‘sam baht, sam baht ka’ in unclear Thai with a smile that would melt the stoniest of hearts. She’s grimy and wearing a filthy little dress that could have been a nice party frock in its former life. Normally I wouldn’t give money to beggars but looking at this poor little thing, not much older than my own daughter back in Bangkok I couldn’t resist and handed over the three baht she was asking for. Her eyes lit up and she thanked me and scampered back to her mother with the good news.

I head out on the road to Chiang Saen through no end of rice paddies, the smell of fires smouldering almost everywhere. Just before the Golden Triangle I pull in to the Hall of Opium, a museum dedicated to the history of the drug that this area is so famous for. It’s a large modern building and very impressive. At 300baht entrance (200baht for Thais) it’s a bit steep and I challenge the staff about the two tier pricing. The first girl looks embarrassed  and  can’t think of anything to say when her more talkative side-kick steps in, and with more than a dollop of sarcasm asks if I pay tax and if I am Thai and goes on to say this is Thailand etc etc. I point out that Thais don’t pay tax in other countries but still pay the same rate as the locals. She shrugs her shoulders and asks for my 300baht. This turns out to be my only negative experience throughout the trip and is actually quite amusing. The museum is well laid out and very informative, the only downside being the rather one sided picture of history that is presented. But despite that and the extortionate entrance fee it is well worth a visit.

A short ride down the road is the Golden Triangle. This is basically a collection of street stalls selling hill tribe goodies at the point of confluence between the Mekong and Ruak rivers, where Loas, Burma and Thailand actually meet, creating a triangle. The golden bit comes from the lucrative production of opium once ubiquitous in this area. The village is actually called Sop Ruak but all the maps have it listed as Golden Triangle, which obviously has better tourist pulling clout than Sop Ruak. The place is positively teeming with tourists foreign and local, mixed with groups of hill tribe kids dressed in colourful traditional dress, licking ice creams and smiling for pictures. The other dominant feature, apart from the river and neighbouring countries, is the large golden Buddha statue, perched high above the road by the side of the river.

Further down the road, about 10km or so is, Chiang Saen. Much older than Mae Sai, Chiang Saen has a lot more character and various ancient ruins for viewing. The sun is starting to go very low and I want to get back to Chiang Rai to find some accommodation, via Chiang Saen Lake, so I more or less just drive through Chaing Saen, stopping very briefly for a look at Wat Chedi Luang. It looks like a good place to spend a night and I make a mental note to return. A few km out of Chiang Saen on the road to Mae Chan is the lake. I don’t really know why I make the effort to go there except that it is a peaceful spot to stop for a drink and to get off the bike and stretch my legs. Back in Chiang Rai I blindly cruise the streets on the bike looking for accommodation and for some daft reason settle on a grubby place called the

Krung Tong Hotel just off Banphaprakan Road. It’s more of a cheap and aged apartment block than hotel and I get a very basic room with ‘en-suite’ and a fan for 270baht. The shower is filthy and has evidence of previous guests encrusted on the walls, the mattress feels like solid teak and the pillow feels as though it’s been stuffed with granite. However, it seems a good idea at the time and isn’t too expensive.
 
Having not eaten since the morning I gorge myself on Thai food just around the corner from the hotel and set off to wander the Chiang Rai nightlife. In the centre there is a really good night bazaar that is definitely worth a wander, even if you’re not interested in buying anything. I weave in and out of the rows of stalls and open fronted shops free from the usual hard sell you get in Bangkok. The main focus of the bazaar seems to be handicrafts and there’s an abundance of wooden ornaments and ceramics for sale plus clothes, food, cloth, and the usual array of weaponry available in most Thai tourist areas. There are also several stalls with artists prepared to sketch your portrait for a reasonable amount of cash, and given the quality of what they are producing it seems like a bargain.
 
Not far from the clock tower on Banpharakan Road is the main drinking area and I wander past numerous pubs with pool tables and TVs, restaurants and massage parlours. There is also a small section devoted to go-go bars and what looks like pick up joints. Not being a regular frequenter of this kind of establishment I decide to have a quick beer in one and see what the more seedier side of Chiang Rai nightlife is like. I wander in to a go-go bar with the rather unimaginative name of, The Go-Go Bar, perch myself on a seat as close to the door as possible and order a Heineken. It’s a narrow bar with mirrored walls, neon and ultra-violet lighting and a small stage at one corner of the far end where a young woman in bra and knickers with a wisp of black lace tied around her waist is shuffling nonchalantly between two stainless steel polls to the Crazy Frog’s rendition of Axel F. She looks happy enough but would never win any dancing awards. Five minutes later and she’s replaced by another young woman who strips to bra and knickers and ties on her bit of lace and begins her little shuffle. The clientele is mainly Thai, with the exception of one foreigner who is holding court with three of the women, who appear to be genuinely hanging on his every word. Nobody approaches me or tries to talk to me and I’m left alone to drink my beer in peace and watch the ‘show’. Maybe I’m too smelly from my day on the bike or maybe the fact that my trainers, normally beaten-up and dirty, have come to life and started to glow radiantly in the ultra-violet light.
 
Sunday morning and it’s an early start. I walk the early morning streets and watch the town come to life. Monks are in abundance collecting charitable offerings from merit making locals. The early morning fruit and veg market is in full swing and doing a brisk trade with its sellers’ wares laid out on stalls and on the streets. Near the clock tower on Banpharakan Road is Doi Chaang coffee shop. I take a seat on the terrace and order coffee and a pancake whilst trying to decide on my route for the day. The local Doi Chaang coffee is definitely worth a try.
 
By 9am I’m on the road again, speeding along the main road towards Mae Chan feeling more confident with the bike and fast becoming addicted to the idea of exploring on two wheels. Just the other side of Mae Chan I hang a left onto the 1130 road and follow a series of windy roads indirectly up Doi Tung towards Phrathat Doi Tung. On the way I stop in an area completely devoid of all signs of life and rest. The scenery is truly stunning and the almost heavenly silence is broken only by the occasional and unmistakable sound of gunfire in the distance, a reminder that the Burmese border is close by.
 
The temple is bursting with Thai and what sounds like Chinese people, praying, making merit, banging on bells and walking around the Lanna style chedis that are said to date back to 911AD.
 
I assume that the view from here would normally be breathtaking but today there is a haze that restricts visibility to about 1 or 2 km so there is not a lot to see.
 
From the temple my exact route is hazy as the map I have is not concise enough to cover the small roads I end up on, so I just push on and on as the roads get narrower. I aim towards Mae Fah Luang and turn right onto the 1334 and then take several turns and go down some very narrow roads. I ride through hill tribe villages where children wave frantically and try to run alongside my bike, shouting and laughing, and mothers holding babies smile. I decide not to stop and take pictures. I know that most people do and I’m sure these people are quite happy with this but I always feel it is a bit voyeuristic and feel uncomfortable with the idea of treating someone’s home as and way of life as a museum.
 
At one point I realise that I’ve not seen a living soul for half an hour or more and the roads are becoming poorer in quality and less travelled. Eventually I come to a military check point on a dusty road near the Thai/Burma border where I’m stopped by a soldier with a semi-automatic rifle. He’s young and actually seems more nervous of me than I of him. He can’t speak English and asks questions in Thai; most of which I can understand. I return several questions about why he is there and about Burma etc and take the opportunity for a rest and drink of water. He’s quite friendly and lets me take some photos and seems quite happy for some company; I can’t imagine he sees an awful lot of people during his average day. Whilst I’m stretching my legs and drinking, his phone rings and he’s questioned about my presence. He then asks to see my passport. Taking it into his little hut he fingers through the pages looking for I don’t know what and it seems apparent that he can’t actually read what he’s looking at. Even so he finds the passport number and jots it down. The barrier is lifted and I’m allowed to continue with my journey.
 
I continue on for quite some time and eventually the roads start to get better again. At one point whilst winding my way through a series of very sharp hairpin bends I have my first, and hopefully only, fall. I take the bend too sharp, lose control and go flying. The bike has minimal damage and I’m just slightly bruised and grazed. I pick the bike up again and I’m thankful that there was no one here to witness my idiocy. But then I realise that if I had been more seriously injured I could have lay there for a long time before being found. Having a mobile is good I guess but useless if you don’t know where you are.  
 
From then on I take more care and start to worry about the damage to the fairing on the bike. The bike is presumably an import job and therefore difficult and pricey to repair. Will I be faced with a huge bill back at ST Motorcycle? Eventually I get out onto better roads and find road signs I recognise and get back to the Mae Chan/Mae Sai road. My concerns are unfounded, as when I return the bike the woman in charge looks at the damage, makes a call and says, ‘mai pen rai ka’.
 
There are many things to see and do in and around Chiang Rai and I’m sure you could spend a weekend in Chaing Rai alone, before even thinking of venturing further afield and, if the signs are to be believed, it even boasts its very own beach. There are guesthouses and hotels in far better positions than the one I stayed at and a plethora of tours available. If I was to go again I would definitely stay further out in a more remote area and maybe spend longer, exploring the whole region by bike.
 
As for my thoughts on Chiang Rai and its people. Just great. They have a wonderful attitude towards life and a splendidly cheery disposition. The tuk-tuk driver who took me to the airport in the evening epitomised the Chaing Rai way beautifully. I asked him if he would take me to the airport and he replied ‘Yes, ok. But slooowly na, no hurry’, and proceeded to give me a guided tour of Chaing Rai on the way.

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